Why you should care

Easy-to-get video gear is making music something we watch before we hear.

There are whole industries built on stuff that’s occult. Most of us don’t know how movies are made, but movies that are made are there to be seen whenever we want to see them. Similarly, most of us who like music are only vaguely aware of what gets the music we like to our ears as fast as we like. Mostly because the first stop has ceased being our ears.

“Whether it’s the aggressive positioning of YouTube or the fact that looking at or watching something seems to take less time than listening, we’ve come increasingly to the conclusion that if music is not existing as videos, it’s not existing,” says Scott Rozell of Blackhouse Records, a small Northwestern record label. Indeed, while, according to Nielsen, the first six months of 2017 saw vinyl album sales up 2 percent from 6.22 million to 6.36 million in the United States, this happened in the face of falling album sales. The suspected enemy? YouTube.

According to Vevo stats, 73 percent of teenagers are saying that music videos are the best platform for the expression of an artist’s creative vision.

That isn’t necessarily clear at first glance, from the official numbers YouTube cites as royalties it pays to the music industry — and that opacity is part of the problem, say some industry insiders.

“BPI over here shows point of sale driving £41.7 million to record labels,” says Kevin Martin, former head of London’s Pathological Records, referring to the British Phonographic Industry. “YouTube? I think they’re only paying £25.5 million for the music they’re showing.” While YouTube claimed to have paid the music industry more than $1 billion globally last year, this came from advertising that runs around music videos, “I think they’re also only paying one-seventh of what the other streaming services pay,” says Martin.

All of which may serve to obscure the fact that the first level of musical exposure for most or many is — the video. In fact, according to Vevo stats, 73 percent of teenagers are saying that music videos are the best platform for the expression of an artist’s creative vision, and 61 percent of them are watching more videos online this year than they were last year. Which is very specifically why, if you’re over 30, you might still think in terms of listening to new music, but if you’re under 30? You’re seeing new music.

None of which is necessarily bad for the creators of the music. “We’re musicians first and foremost,” says Jesse Matthewson, a member of KEN Mode, winner of Canada’s Juno music award back in 2012, and holder of a business degree with a major in marketing. “But deciding what people were going to see when they heard the music we made while [demanding] a different skill set was not unpleasant for us in the least.” The reality is that most bands and musicians in bands are fundamentally delighted to have you spend even more time on their music, whether you’re doing it eyes first or ears first.

“There’s something wonderful about really listening to music and having it be a private and imaginative experience,” says Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu. “But if we get over 100,000 views on a single song when we’re not selling 100,000 records, while I’d like to get paid for it, and music videos turn listening into watching, I’m happy enough to have that many people ultimately hearing what we’re doing.” Or seeing, as the case may be.

Is this bad for anyone outside of the “industry” and their desire for a bigger piece of the YouTube streaming pie, though? Sure, according to Larry S. Miller, director of New York University’s Steinhardt Music Business Program, whose predictions are dire. For traditional terrestrial radio, “it’s never been clearer,” says Miller in a landmark 2017 report. “Radio has to innovate now to remain relevant as a source of music discovery.”

Until then? Well, seeing is believing.

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